Adrian Manuel loves being a dad. What he doesn’t love is the fight to stay relevant in his child’s life.
Unbuckling my daughter from her car seat is always the hardest part. Because it means letting her go. She’ll hop out of the car, and the lump will form in my throat when her tiny arms reach out to me for a hug. I watch as she marches up the driveway, where she will disappear into a house that I cannot enter. I linger by the curb in case she looks back because I don’t want her to see that I’m gone, but that I’m here and will always be here for her despite an arrangement that hardly makes it seem like I’m here at all.
Her mother and I split up just a few months shy of her birth. I begged her to reconsider out of fear of being in this very position. But it was a long time coming. “You can still see her. It won’t be any different,” she assured me. I had to believe those words somehow. I had to believe that even though I would be raising a child with my ex, I would still get a fair say, and that this, whatever “this” is, would work. That even if another man were to enter the picture someday (as it turns out, he was already there), I would still get the chance to be a father to my daughter. I believed so blindly.
My daughter is becoming more and more aware of this “setup” we have going on – of her coming over for a few days out of the week; being shuttled from one parent to the other; her not being able to sleep over yet because her mother insists that they all sleep under one roof – and I can tell she doesn’t know what to make of it.
She draws pictures of houses, her mother and stepfather in one, and me in another. She’s at odds as to where she should draw herself as if she is suddenly forced to choose between the two. One day, she looked up from her drawings and asked, “How come we don’t live in the same house?” She’s four years old. She shouldn’t have to wonder about things like this.
I’m her father so I should have all the answers, but I’m not the father. I don’t have a say as to which house my daughter goes to; I am simply told when. I’m hard-pressed to call myself the second father because that would imply I have a place among my daughter’s new family. I have been reduced to a standby. I’m the back-up babysitter in a long line of other preferred babysitters.
I’m the other dad; the step-aside father. My plans can be cancelled. My calls and pleas can be ignored and dodged with promises of “next time.” So when I drive my daughter home and she asks when we’ll get to see each other again, I tell her “maybe tomorrow,” and the pain sears in my chest because I don’t know if tomorrow exists. Tomorrow could be three days from now, next week, the following weekend, and so on.
The world rarely lets me forget my daughter’s absence, or rather my absence in her life. At family gatherings, I’m forced to endure a barrage of questions all but reminding me of the empty car seat in the back. “Where’s your daughter?” “Is she not coming today?” each of them will ask. One by one, I shake my head and muster whatever strength I have left to remain standing when all I want to do is burrow deep down and cry and forget.
I’ll bump into friends and colleagues at the mall, their eyes strung out as they cradle shopping bags with one arm, and scold their kids with the other. Sighing, they reluctantly send their kids off to the playground where they will get scolded by their parents once more. “You’re lucky,” they say to me, “you’re so lucky you don’t have to put up with your daughter every day.”
I look at my friends with their spouses, my cousins, my aunties and uncles, and I envy them. I envy the way they get to tuck their children in at night, telling them good night as opposed to goodbye; that they all get to sleep under one definable roof with the safety of knowing that there is a tomorrow for them that will never get cancelled or rescheduled. They don’t know how lucky they are to be able to smile in the same picture together, singular and whole.
I wanted that so badly. It’s no longer a possibility for me and I have learned to accept that. I don’t care about being the father anymore. I just want to be a part of my daughter’s life. I want her to know that I fought as hard as I could against this setup that deliberately sets me up to fail her as a parent; that I am fighting each and every day to catch a mere glimpse of her. That, at least, I consider myself lucky enough to have: her.
I keep going back to those first few months after she was born. Her mother and I sat at a diner across from each other. She allowed me to hold my daughter as we ate and discussed how exactly this would work out. “It would be mutual,” we agreed. It had to be, because neither of us wanted our daughter to endure the heartache of custody battles, nor the grief of having to choose between one parent or the other. For a brief moment, we were on the same page, and it truly felt like it was the beginning of something.
As I cradled my daughter, who had fallen asleep in my arms at that point, I remember thinking that the hard part was over and everything would soon fall into place.
That was my mistake.
Photo: Flickr/Teresa Frendsen Hill